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Rights + Justice

A Year after a Police Car Slammed Dennis Hunter, His Family Welcomes Charges

A Vancouver officer faces speeding and driving without due care offences after a shocking crash.

Jen St. Denis 12 Sep 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

[Editor’s note: A video included in this story includes disturbing images of a police car hitting a pedestrian in a crash that left him with serious injuries, and contains vivid descriptions of body trauma. Please read cautiously and watch the videos at your own discretion.]

The ex-wife of a Vancouver man seriously injured when a police car smashed into him a year ago says it’s a great relief that the officer who was driving has been charged with three motor vehicle offences.

The delay in laying charges hurt their family, Rhonda Simpkins told The Tyee, especially Dennis Hunter, who was left with a fractured leg, road rash that led to a serious infection and injuries to his head and face that included a broken eye socket.

“The cop [went] back to work — it hasn’t affected his life at all,” Simpkins said. “Well, it’s severely affected the lives of our family and Dennis especially, just that feeling of there being no consequence.”

The collision was captured on surveillance video, showing Hunter standing motionless on East Hastings Street for several minutes at 3:20 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Then a police car suddenly drove into him, throwing him several metres from the vehicle.

Hunter was hit on a stretch of East Hastings where the speed limit is set at 30 km/h to protect vulnerable pedestrians in a neighbourhood where many residents struggle with addiction and mental health issues.

Simpkins said the length of time it took to complete the investigation has been hard for her and Hunter’s two teenage children. It’s also taken a toll on Hunter’s health.

“For the last year we’ve seen the paranoia grow as nothing happens,” Simpkins said. “In every conversation I have with him, he’s feeling like the cops are out to get him — and why wouldn't he?”

It took B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office, charged with investigating injuries or death as a result of police actions, 10 months to investigate the incident. On July 24 the office recommended motor vehicle charges for Cst. Jack Zhao.

The BC Prosecution Service announced last week that Zhao would be charged with three motor vehicle act offences: speeding, driving without due care and attention, and failing to exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian. His first court date is Sept. 28. The prosecution service will consider evidence gathered by the IIO.

Simpkins said she was told by an IIO investigator that the investigation took a long time because some eyewitness accounts did not match what was shown on the videos of the collision.

[Content warning: This video shows a police car hitting a pedestrian, who survived the collision. Viewer discretion is advised.]

Video shared with the permission of the man who was struck.

In an interview, the IIO’s civilian director, Ron MacDonald, said the watchdog has struggled to retain staff and that was affecting investigations. Recently, the agency has gotten a funding boost from the provincial government to increase pay and hire more investigators.

With a huge increase in police-involved shootings to investigate and staff stretched thin, MacDonald said cases like the East Hastings collision have taken longer to complete. In 2022, the IIO investigated 27 officer-involved shootings, compared to the yearly average of seven.

MacDonald said the office also has to make sure investigations into traffic offences involving police are thorough.

“The officers have access to very experienced counsel and they examine our files very, very carefully,” MacDonald said.

“Often they do result in contested trials. We want to make sure the file is as complete as possible, and we want to make sure we’ve examined every potential area of evidence as we can. If we have to do additional work on a video to have it enhanced, we’ll do that.”

The Vancouver Police Department previously told The Tyee that Zhao remained on duty following the incident.

During a Sept. 23, 2022, press conference, VPD media liaison officer Steve Addison also said that police officers can use their laptops while doing patrols and are exempt from B.C.’s distracted driving prohibitions on using devices while driving.

Simpkins said there needs to be consequences when police injure people.

“It shouldn't happen, and if it does it can't be just pushed over like his life didn't matter, like it was OK, because it’s not,” Simpkins said. “And my kids need to see that it's not OK, and if something like that happens that there’s going to be someone held accountable.”  [Tyee]

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